The Dome of the Rock in the al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images
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Yearning for the same land

There is nothing in the idea of Zionism that leads inexorably to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. And a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the worst of all worlds.

I write regularly on Israel and the Middle East, but there is one word apparently central to the topic I use only rarely: Zionism. That is because the word has become so misunderstood, so freighted with excess baggage, that it has become all but impossible to deploy it without extensive explanation and qualification. Most of the time, it is best avoided.

Part of the trouble is that a single variant – right-wing Zionism – has come to stand for the whole. Many otherwise well-informed people will reserve the word Zionist for, say, militant West Bank settlers, implying that Israel’s own anti-occupation or peace movements are non- Zionist or even anti-Zionist. That is a false assumption resting on a false premise, for most Zionists use the term to describe not the expansionist desire to control the entire biblical land of Israel, but the more modest claim that there should be a Jewish national home within historic Palestine. That’s all Zionism amounts to. As to the exact size and shape of that home, prescriptions vary from one Zionist to another.

Hence the observation by the Israeli novelist and long-time peacenik Amos Oz that the term Zionism makes most sense when preceded by a modifier, as in “secular Zionism”, “religious Zionism”, “left-wing Zionism” or “rightist Zionism”. Zionism is merely the family name: you need to know a person’s first name to know who they really are.

So, yes, there are hawkish Zionists, heirs of the revisionist tradition of Vladimir Jabotinsky, who are territorial maximalists, eager to fly the Israeli flag over all of the West Bank, which they would call Judaea and Samaria. But there are also left-leaning Zionists who believe the original movement’s goal was the liberation of people, not land; that the security, viability and even the ethical character of the Jewish state matter more than its size – and who are therefore not just willing but eager to see territory now occupied by Israel ceded to become sovereign Palestinian land. These people are no less Zionist than their right-wing opponents. Indeed, they can claim to be the true Zionists, in that the 45-yearlong occupation is jeopardising the founding Zionist goal of a Jewish, democratic state.

To distinguish between left and right Zionisms in this way has become unfashionable. More modish is the view, presented robustly on these pages by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, that any difference is and was cosmetic,that Israel’s founders were all equally ruthless towards the Palestinians they dispossessed, regardless of their nominal ideological stripe. Puncturing the myth of left Zionism is a favourite sport in anti-Zionist circles, particular pleasure attaching to the exposure of brutalities committed by the heroes of labour Zionism, with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, top of the list.

What should today’s left-leaning supporter of that basic Zionist proposition – that the Jews, like every other people, have a right to self-determination in the historic land of their birth – do in the face of such evidence? Should they recoil in horror and abandon the entire Zionist idea as morally tainted?

The first step is surely to face the historical record with honesty. It is no good to pretend, as Israel’s supporters did for several decades, thatthe violent dispossession of the 1947-49 perioddid not happen. It did and there needs to be a reckoning. Instead of seeking to ban all public recognition of the Naqba, as the Knesset did last year, Israel needs to look plainly at the circumstances of its birth and understand why Palestinians regard that event as a catastrophe.

That process has begun: what’s more, the work of revising the original Zionist narrative, excavating the truth of 1948 from the archives, was done by Israel’s own “new historians”. Of course it needs to go further. Several years ago the Israeli daily Haaretz aired a proposal for a national memorial day to mark the Arab dispossession, along with a project to name and commemorate each of the Arab villages that was left empty by its inhabitants, who had either fled or been expelled. The idea found few takers.

And yet to admit that bloody past need not lead inexorably to the negation of Israel’s right to exist, as some Israelis fear. Once again, it is Oz who explains it best. He argues that, besides the legal right bestowed by the UN’s 1947 resolution to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, Israel had a moral right – the right of the drowning man. Such a man is entitled to grab hold of a piece of driftwoodeven if another man is already holding it. The drowning man can even make the other man share it, by force, if necessary. His moral right ends, however, the moment he pushes the other man into the sea.

The Jewish people, scythed by the Holocaust and after centuries of persecution, were gasping for breath in 1948; their need for a home was as great as that of any people in history. They had the right to act, even though the cost for another people, the Palestinians, was immense. The turning point came, however, after 1967, when Israelis began to settle in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza. Now Israel was denying the Palestinians the possibility of a sovereign national home, pushing them off the driftwood that fate had ordained they share.

Some like to argue that the post-1967 occupation was the inevitable consequence of 1948, that the latter logically entailed the former. If that were true, then opponents of the current occupation would have to renounce their belief in the Zionist enterprise, reluctantly conceding that it was morally doomed from the start. Yet there is no such logical entailment. The initial decision to allow extreme religious nationalists to settle in the West Bank and Gaza was not the ineluctable consequence of Zionism – as the Israeli right argued then and now. It was not necessary, but utterly contingent, a political choice made by the then-ruling Labour Party that was fatefully, calamitously wrong. (Ben Gurion insisted that, stirring though it was to see those freshly conquered lands, Israel would have to give them back.)

History might have taken a different turn, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. As late as 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation made its epochal shift, recognising Israel and foreseeing a future Palestine alongside it, there was no irresistible logic stopping Israel from grasping that opportunity, ending the occupation and the settlement project and constructing a two-state reality. The same is true of Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000. Each time, human choices on both sides were to blame – along with the cruel fate that cut Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon down at just the point when they understood, and were apparently ready to act on, the case for partition.

There is no denying that it has been hard for progressives to stomach the reality of Israeli policy over decades and that it has pushed the two-state solution ever further out of reach, the dense latticework of settlement making eventual disentanglement a daunting task. Yet it’s a foolish logic which says that because something is this way, it could never have been any other way. If two states now appears a vanishing prospect, that is because of bad decisions that could have been otherwise – not because of something immutable in the Zionist idea.

Which brings us to those said to be abandoning the two-state goal. Perhaps the best-known volte-face came from the late Tony Judt, who floated in a 2003 essay, “Israel: the Alternative”, the notion of a single, binational state encompassing the terrain that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Judt’s apparent conversion was powered less by the theoretical flaws of Zionism than by an exasperated despair with the political situation. It was more pragmatic than ideological, a reaction to the collective failure to pursue a two-state solution.

In fact, the very manner of Judt’s intervention was pragmatic. He and I met shortly after his essay had appeared in the New York Review of Books. We were from similar backgrounds, both raised in London, from self-described socialist-Zionist youth movements, and I had a lot of questions. One centred on the mood of deep, occasionally ugly antagonism towards Israel and Zionism that had then developed in Britain and Europe, in the heat of the second intifada. Given that climate, I asked if he would have published his article in the London Review of Books. To my surprise, he said he would not. He did not want to join a stampede already trampling on the Zionist idea; it was the complacency of the American debate he sought to shake. He aimed to reveal the baleful destination towards which Israel and Zionism were heading, believing that fear of the one-state prospect might shock US Jews in particular into action. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I did not leave that encounter believing that Judt had abandoned entirely the attachments of his youth.

The funny thing is, much Palestinian advocacy of a single state strikes me the same way – as a cry of despair, or else a threat: “See what we’ll start demanding if we don’t get our own state?” The Palestinian thinkers to whom I’ve spoken on this subject exhibit little enthusiasm for the one-state idea except as a tactic to force Israel to pursue two states in earnest.

That makes sense, because the one-state solution is nothing of the sort. It is the lose-lose scenario, in which two peoples who have long yearned for self-determination are both denied. It gives no one, neither Palestinians nor Jews, what they want, namely the chance to be master of their destiny. It suggests that two nations that could not negotiate a divorce should get married instead. It demands that two peoples that have fought bloodily for nearly a century should now live in harmony. It asks of Jews and Arabs the very thing that proved impossible for Czechs and Slovaks – to share a single state. If those mild-mannered central Europeans couldn’t manage it, why do we think Jews and Palestinians would fare better?

The very last people who should want it are those who claim to be pro-Palestinian. Surely it is obvious who will be the weaker partner in this binational equation: economically and by every other measure, Israeli Jews will be the stronger party. Little wonder that the voices agitating loudest for one state these days are on the aggressive Israeli right. Its only appeal is its untried novelty. It is a diversion from the hard, grinding pursuit of the only outcome that can bring a measure of justice – incomplete, to be sure – to these two peoples, fated to seek their dreams in the same land. It is true that the two-state solution, like Zionism itself, has not worked out the way the dreamers hoped. But the fault lies in the execution, not the idea.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future